Celebrating in Isolation

Article by Andrea Paterson

I remember my son’s first birthday in a rather hazy way. I was not well then–overwhelmed by new motherhood and struggling to stay afloat. The idea of having to plan and throw a birthday party felt huge and exhausting, so I had a small party at home, invited only a few very close family and friends, ordered pizza, produced a cake, and called it a day. I felt guilty. I believed that I should have done something much more elaborate and I felt that I had failed my child on a day that should have been joyous and brimming with excitement. In the midst of the planning and expectations it never occurred to me that my child’s first birthday should have equally been a day spent celebrating myself. It was the first anniversary of motherhood after all, the first anniversary of giving birth to a child and picking my way painfully through that first year of nearly unbearable transformation. I threw all my energy into making a party happen for my son and had nothing left to even remotely consider what would have made the day meaningful for me.

Birthdays are complicated milestones, wrapped up as they are in all the memories and emotions that come along with raising a child. As my child grows the part of me that is Mother grows too. When he is an eight year old child I am eight years a mother. We mark this time together. For him it’s exciting to be growing older, for me the feelings are more complicated.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic we have another layer of complexity. I know there are so many parents out there trying to find a way to celebrate life’s big milestones in isolation, with first birthdays triggering a whole host of mixed feelings. I want you to know this: I see you. I see how large that first birthday milestone is for you, how it signals a certain amount of triumph. You survived the first year and you want to do something momentous to mark that survival. You want to surround yourself with the people you love and have them uphold you in that moment. You want balloons and cake and people to hand your baby over to. Or maybe you want a quiet celebration at home, or you planned to travel to visit distant family, or you meant to rent out an entire community center and fill it with other children and their families. Whatever you imagined, it probably wasn’t this: trying to celebrate an occasion so loaded with expectations and hopes during a pandemic lock-down where celebrating anything can feel impossible.

So how can we care for ourselves around celebrations that have suddenly become complex? Online solutions are becoming popular. My child has already attended three Zoom birthday parties, and while it may work for some my own child comes out of such parties feeling more depressed because he’s reminded of how much real world interaction he’s missing, and is angry about not actually getting to eat the cake or give a present or play a game. That might be the case for adults too. I think a lot of us are feeling the fatigue and malaise that comes from so many online interactions. I’ve heard from many that video conferencing is strangely exhausting. So how to manage?

I think this is an instance of going back to the very basics of self care practice. I was listening to a podcast ages ago in which a palliative doctor was talking about end of life care. The question he posed to his patients was “what makes a good day for you?” The answer informed his plan for providing his patients with quality of life in their last days. It’s a strategy that struck me as universally applicable and bizarrely simple. We don’t always have to strive to have the best day: the day that is full of wild excitement and novel experience. Most of the time it is enough to have a good day: a day that is full of the simple pleasures and moments upon which we build our lives.

When it comes to celebrations in isolation starting from the Good Day foundation might be an ideal place to start. If your child is about to have a first birthday, or if you are trying to figure out how to celebrate any major milestones or events in isolation it can help to make a list of things that make a Good Day and begin to see which aspects are accessible under our current lock-down situation. This can work for children and adults, and while it may take a bit of creativity under our current strange circumstances, it can work as a system.

Ever since listening to that podcast that included the Good Day idea I’ve thought a lot about what that means for me. I’ve thought about what the most fundamental elements of a Good Day are in my life and, really, they’re surprisingly simple: a good day means a delicious meal, an uninterrupted cup of tea, time to sit quietly and read or make art, a walk or a bike ride in nature, and connection with the people closest to me. I might also include listening to music I love and getting some time for quiet reflection like journaling or meditation.

Try making a list of things that you would include in your simplest Good Day. This isn’t a place for bucket list items that are extravagant or out of reach. Your basic Good Day likely doesn’t include sky diving, for instance. Start brainstorming as many things as you can and then when you’re looking to celebrate in isolation, pick a few things off the list and see if you can create a Good Day for yourself. Just as it’s okay to be a “good-enough” mother it’s also okay to have “good-enough” days. In our pandemic world “good-enough” is perhaps all most of us can hope for.

You can do this exercise for your older children too when working on planning celebrations with them. We would love to know what you come up with!

Your Good Day means really looking deep within yourself to gain knowledge about the things that most nourish and serve you. This will be different for everyone, but having this knowledge about yourself means that when that momentous first birthday rolls around you will have the tools and awareness to create a celebration that honours you and your child. This is how we build ritual, ceremony, and tradition. It may be that the celebration you put together now, in the midst of a global health crisis, will have echoes that move through the rest of your life. Sometimes the most powerful acts of love and ceremony are the simplest.

Wishing everyone out there a Good Day!